The film had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 5, 2004 and was released in Japanese theaters on November 20, 2004. It went on to gross $231,710,455 worldwide, making it one of the most financially successful Japanese films in history. The film was subsequently dubbed into English by Pixar's Peter Docter and distributed in North America by Walt Disney Pictures. It received a limited release in the United States and Canada beginning June 10, 2005 and was released nationwide in Australia on September 22 and in the UK the following September.
The film starts off with the protagonist of Howl’s Moving Castle, Sophie, a timid and unsure 18-year-old girl who works in her late father's hat shop. She has a chance encounter with the mysterious wizard Howl, who rescues her from some menacing soldiers. However, by doing so, Howl brings Sophie to the attention of the Witch of the Waste, who visits Sophie and puts a curse on her, transforming her into a 90-year old woman. Unable to tell anyone of the curse, she sets off on her journey to the West, to beg Howl to lift the curse. On the way she meets a magically animated scarecrow whom she names Turnip Head. Together they find Howl's moving castle.
Inside the castle, Sophie comes across a fire demon, Calcifer, with whom she makes a deal: He will change Sophie back to her normal age if she can break the contract that binds Calcifer and Howl together. "Grandma" Sophie also meets Markl, Howl's young apprentice; Howl himself appears soon after. Sophie hides her true identity and claims to be a cleaning lady hired by Calcifer to maintain the castle. (However, Howl, like Calcifer, has been able to 'see through' the spell all along.)
Sophie discovers that the front door of the moving castle is magical, allowing transport to four different destinations. She also begins to see Howl's true nature. He shows this when Sophie messes with his potions in the bathroom, accidentally causing his hair to turn black. Howl throws a tantrum and calls on the Spirits of Darkness.
Time passes, and Howl receives summons from both Porthaven as Wizard Jenkins and Kingsbury as Wizard Pendragon to fight for the King. A war is being fought over the missing Crown Prince Justin. Howl suspects the Kingsbury summons is a trap set by Madame Suliman, Kingsbury's head sorceress and Howl's old mentor. Too cowardly to confront her himself, Howl convinces Sophie to speak to Suliman by posing as his mother, "Mrs. Pendragon."
Sophie runs into the Witch of the Waste while going to the royal castle. In the castle, the Witch of the Waste is captured by Suliman's stronger magic, stripped of her powers, and shrunken into a helpless old lady. Suliman then confronts "Mrs. Pendragon" and demands that Howl become a war magician. Howl comes to her rescue disguised as the King of Ingary, but Suliman sees through his disguise. They escape on a flying machine along with Heen, Suliman's asthmatic errand dog, and the now-helpless Witch of the West. Howl stays behind, fighting off the chasing soldiers, while Sophie goes ahead, flying back to the castle. Suliman, however, learns of Sophie's identity. Howl returns in a large birdlike form later that night and Sophie wakes up as her young self again. She confesses her love to him and tells him she wants to help him break his curse. Howl rejects her and flies away. Sophie wakes up to find it was all a dream. Japan DVD Cover Japan DVD Cover
Howl transforms the castle into a larger and more beautiful version of itself as a present for Sophie. Meanwhile, the self-confidence she has gained, along with her developing affection towards Howl, has begun to reverse Sophie's curse, returning her gradually to her true age.
Madame Suliman attempts to track Howl down at the hat shop. Howl flies off to defend them; however, each time he transforms into a large birdlike creature to defend himself and his friends, it becomes increasingly difficult for him to revert to human form. Sophie receives a surprise visit from her mother Honey, sharing a brief but emotional reunion. Honey, secretly blackmailed by Madam Suliman, leaves a small bag which turns out to be a spy bug. The Witch of the West destroys it by feeding it to Calcifer, but it severely weakens him as a result.
Eventually, Suliman's henchmen swarm the hat shop, forcing Howl and Sophie to retreat. Howl transforms into the bird creature to draw the enemies away, while Sophie moves the castle back to the Wastes. Sophie convinces Calcifer to rescue Howl, but in his weakened state, Calcifer is unable to move the entire castle. Sophie removes Calcifer from his hearth, to reduce the size of the house, but then returns him and uses her own hair as fuel. However, the Witch spies Howl's heart in the ashes — the one thing she had been seeking for ages — and greedily grabs it. The heart sets her aflame, forcing Sophie to throw a bucket of water on her and Calcifer. Calcifer is reduced to a small flame that is unable to control the castle. The castle breaks down even further and they are all thrown off a cliff.
Sophie cries for Howl, thinking he is dead, but then in the rubble, she finds the magical castle portal. She enters to find herself transported into Howl's childhood. She learns of the relationship between Howl and Calcifer, and discovers why Howl is unable to truly love anyone. She returns to the present to find Howl outside the door. Howl is in bird creature form, badly injured and bleeding, but is able to take them back to their friends.
Sophie, Howl and Heen land on the remnants of the castle, and Howl falls unconscious as he transforms back into human shape. Sophie convinces the Witch to give Howl's heart back to him and pushes it into Howl's chest. Calcifer emerges in his true form and shoots off. Without Calcifer powering it, the remnants of the castle give way. Turnip Head sacrifices himself to stop the castle from sliding off a cliff and Sophie thanks him by giving him a kiss. Turnip Head then turns into Crown Prince Justin, who had been transformed by a spell that could only be broken by a kiss by his true love, Sophie. However, when Howl wakes up, Sophie shows she is really in love with Howl, which breaks her own curse. Crown Prince Justin, resigned, goes back to tell his king to stop the meaningless war. Calcifer returns and decides to stay even though his contract with Howl was broken.
Heen reports all this to Madame Suliman back in Kingsbury via her crystal ball; with Prince Justin rescued, there is no reason to continue the war. The film ends with Sophie, Howl, the Witch of the West, Calcifer, Markl, and Heen traveling in the newly-rebuilt castle — which now flies (a reference to the book's sequel, Castle in the Air).
The movie stars the following actors:
|Character||Voice Actor-Japanese||Voice Actor- English|
|Grandma Sophie||Chieko Baishō||Jean Simmons|
|Howl||Takuya Kimura||Christian Bale|
|Witch of the Waste||Akihiro Miwa||Lauren Bacall|
|Calcifer||Tatsuya Gashūin||Billy Crystal|
|Young Sophie||Chieko Baishō||Emily Mortimer|
|Markl||Ryūnosuke Kamiki||Josh Hutcherson|
|Madame Suliman||Haruko Katō||Blythe Danner|
|Lettie||Yayoi Kazuki||Jena Malone|
|Honey||Mayuno Yasokawa||Mari Devon|
|Prince Justin/Turnip||Yō Ōizumi||Crispin Freeman|
|King||Akio Ohtsuka||Mark Silverman|
|Suliman's servants||Mitsunori Isaki||Makoto Yasumura|
|Heen (Dog)||Daijirō Harada||---|
|Madge||Rio Kanno||Liliana Mumy|
|Cake seller||Hiroyuki Morisaki|
|Hashinoue man||Shigeyuki Totsugi|
|Port City fish seller||Seiji Sasaki|
|Castle gatekeeper||Takuma Otomo|
Character Japanese version English version
- Kabuto Tomoe Hanba
- Yō Ōizumi
- Manabu Muraji
- Keiko Tsukamoto
- Hiroshi Takahashi
- Rina Yamada
- Yōhei Ōbayashi
- Yukiko Mizuochi
- Izumi Matsuoka Carlos Alazraqui
- Newell Alexander
- Rosemary Alexander
- Julia Barnett
- Susan Blakeslee
- Leslie Carrara
- Mitch Carter
- David Cowgill
- Holly Dorff
- Moosie Drier
- Ike Eisenmann
- Will Friedle
- Bridget Hoffman
- Richard Steven Horvitz
- Sherry Hursey
- Hope Levy
- Christina MacGregor
- Joel McCrary
- Edie Mirman
- Daran Norris
- Peter Renaday
- Kristina Rutherford
- Warren Sroka
Differences between film and novel
Diana Wynne Jones did meet with representatives from Studio Ghibli but did not have any input or involvement in the production of the film. Miyazaki travelled to England in summer 2004 to give Jones a private viewing of the finished movie. She has been quoted as saying:
"It's fantastic. No, I have no input—I write books, not films. Yes it will be different from the book—in fact it's likely to be very different, but that's as it should be. It will still be a fantastic film."
As Jones noted, the film is significantly different from her original novel. Roughly the first third of the plot is similar, after which the movie branches off into original territory, flavored with many of Miyazaki's familiar themes: airships, redemption, solving one's own problems, beautiful natural landscapes, Victorian to World War II period European or Japanese societies (roughly 1860–1945), and cute non-human sidekicks. The focus is still on Sophie and her adventure while being cursed with old age, but the main action of the film's story takes place during a war, reminiscent of World War I (with bombing-attacks on civilian cities reminiscent of the Blitz of World War II, and monstrously-large Dreadnought style battleships), and located in a fantastical nation somewhat reminiscent of pre-World War I Alsace. Indeed, many buildings in the town are identical to actual buildings in the Alsatian town of Colmar, which Miyazaki acknowledged as the inspiration for its setting.
Whereas the novel is concerned with Howl's womanizing and his attempts to weasel out of locating a lost wizard and a prince, the film has Howl avoiding helping in a national war for pacifist reasons, and deals with the consequences of this decision. This aspect of the film's plot is actually rooted in Miyazaki's political views as a pacifist — in an interview with Newsweek magazine, Miyazaki told the interviewer that the movie had started production "just as your country [the USA] had started the war against Iraq", and the subsequent rage he felt about the Iraq war "profoundly impacted" the film.
The movie also delves into spectacular scenes of radically alternate realities co-existing within the normal reality of the main story, and phantasmagorical visuals are prominently featured throughout the second half of the film. The book has the protagonists detour for one chapter into the 20th century world, where Howl is known as Howell Jenkins. This element is not used in the film, although one of Howl's aliases is "The Great Wizard Jenkins."
Many of the book's characters are modified for the film. The character of Howl's apprentice, Michael Fisher, is a teenager (15) in the book but a young boy, "Markl", in the film. Sophie has only one sister in the movie compared to two in the book (although the other sister is alluded to as an aside near the film's opening). The Witch of the Waste, instead of looking young and beautiful, is a huge heavyset woman that later becomes an old crone; as opposed to the frightening villain terrorizing the characters in the book, the film's latter half transforms her into a "grandmother" character and is even taken into Howl's home. Calcifer, who is a scary looking fire demon in the book, is portrayed as an adorable little flame in the film, although twice he blazes up into a wicked-looking blue flame strongly reminiscent of his appearance in the book. Finally, while in the book the 'Wizard Suliman' is an ally, in the film this is changed to 'Madame Suliman', a villain. Various other characters in the film are composites of the book's characters, with different motivations and personalities. Sophie and Howl themselves most strongly resemble Jones' characters (though Howl has a completely different background), but with gentler personas and less selfish motivations; that is, typical Jones character traits are softened into typical Miyazaki character traits.
The depiction of magic effects seem to be centered around stick-like figures of light or shadow that seem to represent shooting stars, demons, magical minions or aspects of the essence of magical power all at once. These "beings" make their appearance numerous times in the film: The "blob men" of Madame Suliman, the magical barrier on the ground around Kingsbury that disabled vehicles and magic, the shooting stars (which die upon contact with the Earth, especially bodies of water), as the ring of disabling magic that appears around the captured Witch of the Waste and the nearly-captured Howl (in this instance, the beings sing a childlike song as they hold hands and move in a slow ring around Howl and Sophie). The dual-nature of the demons seems to be that they are made of starlight, of normal flame, and also an essence of magic power in general.
The film was widely praised by critics earning an 85% average at film aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. USA Today critic Claudia Puig praised it for its ability to blend "a childlike sense of wonder with sophisticated emotions and motives" while Richard Roeper called it an "insanely creative work". Other critics described it as "a visual wonder", "A gorgeous life-affirming piece", and "an animated tour de force." A dissenting view came from Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times who felt that it was one of Miyazaki's "weakest" films. The film was also listed by Sight & Sound, the official magazine of the British Film Institute, as one of the best films of 2005. It was the only animated film to be included on the list.
Top ten lists
The film appeared on many critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2005.
- 2nd - Ella Taylor LA Weekly (tie)
- 4th - Kenneth Turan Los Angeles Times
- 5th - Tasha Robinson The Onion
- 6th - Lawrence Toppman, The Charlotte Observer
- 6th - Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader (tie)
- 8th - Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun
- 8th - Michael Wilmington The Chicago Tribune
- NA - Peter Rainer The Christian Science Monitor (Listed alphabetically)
- Osella Awards for Technical Achievement; 61st Venice Film Festival
- Best Japanese Movie Overall; 2004 Mainichi Film Awards
- Excellence Prize, Animation; 2004 Japan Media Arts Festival
- Animation of the Year; 2005 Tokyo International Anime Fair
- Best Director (Hayao Miyazaki); 2005 Tokyo Anime Awards
- Best Voice Actor/Actress (Chieko Baisho); 2005 Tokyo Anime Awards
- Best Music (Joe Hisaishi); 2005 Tokyo Anime Awards
- Audience Award; 2005 Maui Film Festival
- 1st Runner Up, Golden Space Needle Award; 2005 Seattle International Film Festival
- Nomination, Best Animated Feature; 78th Academy Awards